SAILING TO SARANTIUM
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Earthlight & Harper
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Guy Gavriel Kay's latest novel, Sailing to Sarantium, is a thinly disguised version of the history of Justinian I of Byzantium. Actually, Sailing to Sarantium is only half a thinly disguised version of the history of Justinian I of Byzantium, for the novel is book one of Kay's "The Sarantine Mosaic." Knowing it to be the first half of the story, Kay seems content to slowly build the background necessary for the story, ending the book without bringing very many of the events to any sort of denoument. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing, but it means leaving the reader hanging until the second novel comes out, one would hope sometime in 1999.
As mentioned, Kay slowly builds his background in Sailing to Sarantium. This translates into a novel in which action takes a back seat to texture. In lesser hands, this could have been a slow-moving novel, but Kay has frequently shown himself to be a master at building and presenting cultures. The main portion of Sailing to Sarantium begins with the Mosaicist Crispin leaving his native Varena to travel to Sarantium to work on Valerius II's great Sanctuary. Kay follows Crispin through the partially barbarous Sauradia, presenting first the fallen lands of Batiara, then the wild lands of Sauradia and finally Crispin's entrance into the civilized Sarantium. This world is, in many ways our world, but there are differences. The majority worship Jad, the Sun God, whose religion is similar to, but has major differences from, Christianity. On the borders are the Kindath, the moon-worshippers who were Kay's Jewish-analogs in The Lions of al-Rassan.
As Crispin travels to the Imperial capital, he makes some acquaintances, the bodyguard Vargos, the slavegirl Kasia and the Centurion Carullus who help him on his journey and then remain to guard him in the city. He also, of course, meets movers and shakers, from Gisel, the Queen of Batiara, to Valerius II and his empress, Alixiana. These are the people who ultimately shape Crispin's destiny, despite his desires to remain separate from Sarantine politics.
Kay's characterization is less smooth than one would expect from Kay's earlier works. Crispin is shown early on as having a constant bad temper. However, for the most part he seems so level headed than when, later in the novel, he exerts his bad temper it draws attention to the fact that he has not been, in general, in a bad humor. Similarly, Crispin, newly arrived in Sarantium from the backwater Varena is brought before the Imperial Court where he stumbles through the various intrigues of the Court, frequently coming out better than those who have spent their lives in the midst of the Byzantine (Sarantine?) politics.
Although the majority of the novel focuses on Crispin, Kay also turns his attention to his other characters, showing the Sarantine Empire through the eyes of Crispin's various companions, the Emperors Valerius I andf Valerius II, Queen Gisel, charioteers, Fotius the Sandalmaker, and several others. Kay creates a depth to his culture by using so many unique and varied voices in telling his story.
Kay calls his cycle the "Sarantine Mosaic," partly because his primary character is a mosaicist, but also because the novel is written as a mosaic. Bits and pieces appear which hint at more to come. In many cases these seem fragmentary until Kay places the next piece into position several pages later. Given Kay's writing skills, it would seem that the mosaic won't be fully revealed until the second book appears, however the mosaic is incomplete as Sailing to Sarantium concludes.